I have been revising our Family Law A to Z and thought it might be useful to post a few of the entries; this one is about the phenomenon of ‘gatekeeping’.
The behaviour of a parent who believes they have the right to control access to their child by the other parent – sometimes called ‘gaslighting’.
Many mothers, having carried a child for nine months, given birth and breast fed, tend to see their child as an extension of their own bodies and cannot imagine that anyone else can love or care for their child as they do. Such mothers, particularly during the vulnerable time after relationship break-down, use their children as emotional support and are reluctant to let them out of their sight. This comment from a parenting forum is characteristic,
My children are little bits of me walking this earth; always will be mine and mine completely and nobody will ever be able to love them, understand them, care for them and spoil them to the core as I do… I’m the one who had a VERY hard time letting go of the control that I have on every aspect of their life, as the primary care giver. Once I accepted that they could spend a weekend not brushing their teeth the way I made them brush, and they would probably survive a weekend of non-adequate teeth brushing, I started to enjoy my time alone. Most of all, I started to trust my ex as a father.
The excuses for blocking contact are numerous. Some will strive to place the blame with the child by suggesting that he is ill or too busy with other activities; others will blame the contact parent, arguing that he might return the child late, or not at all, or that his home is not suitable or it is inappropriate for the child to meet his new partner.
The non-resident parent needs to understand why contact is being interfered with and the concerns the resident parent may have; he needs to tread sensitively, while at the same time focusing on the child’s need for a meaningful relationship with him. The resident parent must understand the child’s developmental needs and not burden the child with her own insecurities; she must respect that the other parent’s parenting time is his.
If a child is genuinely ill, the non-resident parent should be kept informed. He should say simply how sorry he is to hear that, how disappointed he is not to be able to see him, and how he respects the decision; a get-well card is a good way for the parent to show he is thinking of his child. He should telephone regularly to enquire after the child’s health and suggest a new date for contact, such as the following weekend. Any agreement should be confirmed by letter.
Making other arrangements – for a children’s party, football practice, to see grandparents, etc. – is a common tactic to prevent contact by a parent who doesn’t think contact with a father is important. The first response should be to express surprise that more notice wasn’t given and to agree to change the contact to another date. If the practice becomes a habit a more robust approach will be necessary.
Some resident parents arrange after-school activities every day of the week and throughout the weekend to provide an excuse for no contact. As a consequence children become exhausted and their school work deteriorates. When children’s health, development and educational progress start to suffer decisive action has to be taken and a return to court may be called for.
Perhaps the most common obstacle is the self-appointed primary carer who seeks to control contact, dictating not only times of contact but also what the other parent does during those times, insisting that they are told where they are and where they are going, and demanding regular telephone calls with the child. This behaviour is unhealthy and likely to result in conflict and eventually court. Both parents must learn to respect that each parent’s parenting time is their own, to use as they see fit. Parents often have very different ideas about appropriate parenting, but neither should make any attempt to control the other or interfere.
A father who left the relationship early in his child’s life, or who has limited contact following separation, has little experience of hands-on parenting. It takes a leap of faith for an over-protective mother to hand her child over to him. If she feels abandoned, or blames him for the break-down of the relationship, it is understandable that there should be difficulties with contact. It is important for fathers to understand why a mother is unwilling to share parenting; it is easy to allege parental alienation or implacable hostility and make heavy-handed applications when mediation would be a more productive approach.